The Vort: Mattot-Mase'ei – Cities of Refuge: The Distance Between the Real and the Symbolic

Little else in life is as painful and horrifying as the death of a loved one. The experience
of loss can be all the more difficult for the bereaved in the case of a sudden departure,
such as in the case of murders and freak accidents. Whereas the Torah’s response to pre-
meditated murder is fairly simple and direct, its treatment of unintended manslaughter is
somewhat more involved and ethically advanced for its times.
Last Shabbat’s Torah double-portion, Mattot-Mase’ei, introduces a system whereby
individuals responsible for accidental manslaughter can seek refuge in one of six cities
specially designated as a safe space for them until the death of the current Kohen Gadolcrime-scene1
(the High Priest).  Outside of these cities of refuge, the accidental killer could be pursued by the victim’s loved ones, within the legal bounds of Torah law. (Note, however, that Deut. 19, in its review of this case, does not mention the clause about returning home upon the death of the Kohen Gadol. Additionally, under the broad designation of “unintended manslaughter,” the Mishnah distinguishes between three separate categories)
The entire concept of the cities of refuge forcefully reminds us that there is an essential and insurmountable gap between that which is felt—that which is lodged in the innermost chambers of our hearts—and that which is expressed. While symbolic expressions of grief (and quite possibly anger) are inextricably bound to the emotion that triggered them, these forms are always a culturally-conditioned performative measure and should never be mistaken for the incommensurable raw emotion itself.
Indeed, the six identified cities not only represent that impossible gap between what is internally felt and externally performed, they themselves literally enact that distance in a formalized legal setting, collectively honoured and acknowledged by the whole of that society. The symbolic power of the cities of refuge lies in its very designation as an outwardly symbolic response. Clearly, the deceased has not been, and cannot be, returned to her/his loved ones; any proposed quid pro quo ‘exchange’ (such as a ‘blood price’ or execution) is not only a superfluous measure, but this kind of symbolic restitution actually undermines the unspeakable tragedy of the loss itself in literally ‘quantifying’ the loss.
As we see in The Illiad, in a different context (this time involving an intended murder), Achilles cannot accept Agamemnon’s offer of material compensation in the face of his unbearable tragedy. Ajax’s response to Achilles’ refusal of any blood-price by connecting that insuperable distance between feeling and expression to the reparative power of social forms and to human mortality itself:

And yet a man takes from his brother’s slayer
the blood price, or the price for a child who was killed, and the guilty
one, when he has largely repaid, stays still in the country,
and the injured man’s heart is curbed, and his pride, and his anger
when he has taken the price; but the gods put in your breast a spirit
not to be placated. . . .

The stability of human social interaction, according to Ajax’s response, is contingent upon the feasibility of social exchanges that do not express individuals’ feelings, but rather, gives concrete form to them in a purely symbolic manner. In this way, we can view the creation of the cities of refuge not as an adequate correlative of what the bereaved individuals feel, but rather, as an attempt to forge a fixed symbolic understanding of the very nature of loss and the emotions it engenders. And while the cities of refuge presents a particularly illustrative example of the essential distinction between symbolic and literal compensation, Mattot-Mase’ei offers other instances of symbolic arrangements. The double-portion opens with a discussion of the handling of vows (Num. 30) and closes with a recap of Zelophehad’s daughters’ land settlement (Num. 36).

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